Major organisations that Greece is a member of
Spending of military as a percentage of GDP
Number of refugees and migrants in Greece (UNHCR estimate as of 31 Oct. 2019)
Length of coastline
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Spurred on by the country's difficult economic times,
Greece has become particularly active on the diplomatic front.
Athens has tackled decades-old thorny issues and extended its reach to the
east and west in moves that re-establish the country’s leading position in the
It is commonplace to describe Greece as being ‘at the crossroads’ of three
continents, a geographical position which brings with it both opportunities
and threats. As such, diplomacy has been perhaps the most important
component of statecraft for the country’s leaders and governments over the
centuries. For a small country with limited natural resources, Greece has
punched above its weight at many key points in history.
“Because of its position and size, Greece has historically developed a multi-
dimensional, pluralist approach to foreign policy,” says Constantinos Filis,
General Director of the Institute of International Relations in Athens.
“The ability to maintain good relations in many directions will serve the
country well in a time of shifting global weights and changing
alliances. Greece is culturally closer to the west but also knows how to talk to
the east, and that is a cultural skill that it can leverage to its advantage.”
Greece continues to play a central role as a pillar of stability and growth in the broader region, while relations with the U.S. are at their historic apex, says Nikos Dendias, Minister of Foreign Affairs.
Greece spends 0.04% of its budget on diplomacy. Driven equally by political
culture and pragmatism, Greece has an interest in fostering stable, democratic
institutions in its immediate neighbourhood and promoting respect for
international law. In recent years, this quest has taken on greater urgency due
to the country’s sovereign debt crisis. Taking its lead from earlier initiatives,
Greece pursued a particularly active, multidimensional foreign policy agenda
aimed at re-establishing the country’s role as a leading regional power.
A recent government initiative has brought responsibility for foreign trade
and investment under the umbrella of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “In
order to effectively respond to emerging challenges in this new era that
follows Greece’s exit from the crisis, it became evident that the Ministry of
Foreign Affairs needed to assume a wider, more modern role,” says Foreign
Minister Nikos Dendias. “Overall, this new, comprehensive strategy aims at
transforming Greece’s economy, providing potential investors with a safe
environment and promoting Greece’s numerous comparative advantages.”
A surprising development of the last decade was the discovery of substantial
hydrocarbon reserves in the eastern Mediterranean. As the nearest entry point
into mainland Europe, these discoveries put Greece in a pivotal position to
act as an energy hub and to assume a key role in diversifying the EU’s energy
supplies while improving energy security.
Already in possession of modern facilities for the transportation of natural
gas by sea and land, Greece is investing in more capacity domestically and
becoming a key partner in major international projects.
In 2020 the Trans Adriatic Pipeline (TAP), an 878 km-long gas pipeline
representing a €4.5 billion investment, will start to bring gas from Azerbaijan
to Italy, as well as feeding into the southeastern European markets. The project
is the result of intergovernmental cooperation between Greece, Italy, and
Albania – with EU backing – and private sector involvement from Greece,
Italy, Belgium, Spain, Switzerland, and the United Kingdom.
Greece is also partnering with Bulgaria for the Interconnector Greece-
Bulgaria (IGB) and building a major liquefied natural gas (LNG) termial in
Alexandroupoli to complement the existing facility in Revithoussa.
Perhaps the most ambitious energy project proposed is the EastMed, a
record-breaking 2,000 km undersea pipeline to connect the gas fields of Israel
and Cyprus to the Greek network, and ultimately to the rest of Europe. The
Greek government has signed several high-level agreements with Israel and
Cyprus backing the project, culminating in the inking of a final agreement on
the pipeline in early January 2020 by energy ministers of Greece, Israel, and
Cyprus. While Italy still needs to sign off on the agreement, targets have been
set for a final investment decision to be made by 2022, and for the pipeline to
be completed by 2025.
The new opportunities offered by joint energy projects have helped to foster
an unprecedented degree of cooperation between Greece and Israel in a
number of areas, including defence, tourism, and shipping, as well as
leveraging the two countries’ substantial diasporas – with the potential to pay
dividends in both the economic and the diplomatic sphere for years to come.
The initiatives have also underlined Greece’s important role in the eastern Mediterranean and enhanced ties with partners such as Israel, Egypt, and Jordan.
Tensions with neighbouring Turkey have been a mainstay of regional
geopolitics for the last two centuries, ever since the two countries came into
existence as modern states. Turkey’s increasing isolation from the West and
its neighbours following the 2016 failed coup attempt and the country’s
involvement in the Syrian civil war alongside Russia has been seen by
many as a tipping point in its relationship with the West.
With EU accession talks stalled, and the United States threatening economic
war and the suspension of arms sales, some see a greater opportunity for
Greece to build its position as a stabilising force in the region.
Athens has worked hard to maintain stable diplomatic relations with Ankara, notwithstanding belligerent rhetoric and aggressive manoeuvres by its neighbour under President Erdogan. And while hydrocarbon discoveries in the eastern Mediterranean are a boon for the region, Turkey’s stated intent to continue internationally condemned exploratory drilling activities off the coast of the divided island of Cyprus, including within its Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), have sparked renewed tensions between Athens and Ankara. A series of sanctions were prepared by the European Union against Turkey in response.
Escalating matters further, in November 2019 a bilateral accord was signed
between Turkey and Libya’s UN-backed government on maritime boundaries
in the Mediterranean Sea in a bid to create an exclusive economic zone
spanning from Turkey’s southern Mediterranean shore to Libya’s northeast
coast. And while the agreement has been opposed by the European Union,
and lacks legal bearing on third countries, the move is seen as an attempt by
Ankara to clear the way for oil and gas exploration in the area, and thwart the
progression of the EastMed pipeline project.
These so-called memorandums of understanding (MoUs), says Minister Dendias, “violate international law and the Law of the Sea, and, as such, are null and void and serve close to nothing to bring peace and stability in Libya and in the wider region.”
Greece has threatened to block an EU-backed political solution in Libya
unless the agreement is scrapped.
Yet despite a build-up of friction, Turkish incursions in the Aegean, Greece’s
sheltering of accused coup plotters, and the management of the refugee crisis,
high-level diplomatic relations continue unabated despite the often-strident
Prime Minister Mitsotakis and President Ergodan met on the sidelines of the
NATO gathering in London in December 2019. They agreed to continue
discussions on the Confidence-Building Measures of the Ministry of Defense
– a list of actions ranging from cultural exchanges to military rules of
engagement – first initiated between the two countries as far back as 1988.
Greece also continues to support Turkey’s EU accession bid, arguing that
bringing Turkey within the western fold will ultimately lead to a more stable
long-term relationship governed by European laws and values. Accordingly,
Athens prefers to direct any retaliatory actions against Turkey through EU
Deteriorating U.S.-Turkish relations and shared economic interests,
particularly in the energy sector, have brought Athens and Washington closer
together during the Trump presidency.
At the diplomatic level, Greece and the U.S. inaugurated Strategic Dialogue
in 2018, which aims to deepen the relationship in a number of dimensions,
including defence and investment. In 2019, the two countries signed a new
military defence cooperation agreement, upgrading their strategic ties.
Ties were further cemented in January 2020 after U.S. President Donald
Trump welcomed Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis to the White
House. Besides being an opportunity to present Greece’s political views, the
visit was an opportunity to boost cooperation in areas of defense, economy
and energy, while seeking U.S. backing in response to Turkish provocations.
The U.S. has, at times, expressed concern about Russian political influence in
Greece, however Athens has managed to maintain good relations with both
countries, building on religious and cultural ties with Russia as well as more
recent links in trade and tourism. Greece is demonstrating that good relations
with these traditional rivals are not mutually exclusive.
In 2018, the U.S. was the honoured guest at the Thessaloniki International
Fair, which was attended by senior Washington officials and more than 50
U.S. companies. This was a formal expression of U.S. interest in participating
in Greece’s economic recovery, and an acknowledgement of Greece’s role as
the leading regional power in southeast Europe.
Meanwhile, there has been strong engagement at lower-level events relating
to high-tech knowledge sharing across a variety of sectors, high-level
meetings with major U.S. businesses, and a strategic investment pipeline with
a particular focus on energy projects.
To Greece’s north, Cold War-era divisions and their subsequent ethnic
conflicts have left a heterogeneous patchwork of countries in the Balkan
peninsula, with major structural differences in the neighbouring national
Recent history has also left enduring physical barriers, including segmented
road and highway networks. Recent developments, however, have
highlighted the enormous benefits that could accrue to the region by
overcoming these barriers through closer cooperation and the creation of
integrated energy and logistics networks.
Greece gave new impetus to its role in Southeast Europe by championing the
quadrilateral summit of Balkan states – an informal initiative bringing its
government together with the governments of Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia
– to promote their shared priorities of enhanced connectivity and European
integration in the region. As the quartet’s oldest EU and NATO member,
Greece has brought to the table know-how and vision, as well as influence
within international organisations, that benefit the region as a whole.
Having pioneered the creation of the European perspective on Balkan countries since 2003, when it pushed forward the Thessaloniki Agenda,
Greece has also helped, through its alliances, to keep EU enlargement in the Balkans on the EU agenda despite the recent setbacks in accession talks.
Meanwhile it has benefitted from greater coordination in representing shared
regional interests in major transnational projects, such as China’s Belt and
Road Initiative and the EastMed Pipeline.
The quartet has also played a key role in pushing ahead the China and Central
and Eastern European Countries summits (China-CEEC summits), seeking to
forge closer ties between China and 17 central and eastern European
countries. The 2018 summit in Varna, Bulgaria hosted Israeli Prime Minister
Commercial interests aside, there is a widely shared awareness that only
strong institutions can guarantee sustainable growth in the region.
The ratification of the Prespa Agreement serves as a bright though
exceptional example of peace-making in a region marred by resurgent
nationalism and ethnic tensions. Greece has increased its diplomatic weight,
as a result of this achievement, which some see as a template for solving
other disputes in the region through multilateral negotiations. In this respect,
Greece must now support the implementation of the agreement against
continuing challenges, all the while nudging North Macedonia towards
shared values and respect for international law.
The commercial benefits of closer relations with China are already very evident. Over the last decade, investment by Chinese state-owned COSCO in the Port of Piraeus, designated the Dragon’s Head of China’s New Silk Road into Europe, has turned Piraeus into the second-largest container port in the Mediterranean. And it has ambitious long-term expansion plans. China’s State Grid owns a minority stake in the national power transmission network, while there is growing interest from Chinese corporations in investing in major infrastructure projects and renewable energy, as well as establishing research and development partnerships.
In November 2019, on the back of bilateral visits by Greek Prime Minister Mitsotakis to Shanghai, and by China’s President Xi Jinping to Athens, government officials signed 16 bilateral deals. In doing so, besides expanding the presence of logistics giant COSCO at Greece’s Port of Piraeus, a roadmap was forged to deepen bilateral business ties in areas including energy, agriculture, tourism, and logistics. A 17-point joint statement on “Strengthening the Comprehensive Strategic Partnership” was also signed, underlying “Greece’s important role in promoting the EU-China partnership.”
On the back of growing diplomatic and commercial relations, increasing
numbers of Chinese citizens are visiting Greece for tourism. 200,000 Chinese
visitors were recorded in 2018, out of a total of 33.1 million visitors to
Greece that year. According to Bank of Greece data, the number of visitors
from China is projected to carry on growing at an annual rate of over 20%.
Some are forming more lasting ties. Between 2014 and October 2019, close
to 3,500 Chinese citizens gained residence in Greece through the
government’s Golden Visa Greece programme for property investors. By far,
they are the largest group out of a total of 5,300 according to official figures
from the Ministry of Citizen Protection. At the same time, cultural and
educational links are being strengthened through university programmes and
cultural exchanges, creating deeper links between the two countries. An
official visit by President Xi Jinping in November 2019 was the occasion for
the signing of 16 further agreements on trade and economic cooperation.
Greece has a fine balancing act to maintain between its strong institutional
ties with the West, cemented through its membership in the EU and NATO,
and the relationships it is cultivating with rival powers such as China and
Concerns about alleged growing political and commercial influence, and potential
security threats through control of major infrastructure, have Greece’s
western partners keeping a close eye on developments and seeking to limit
the reach of Chinese investments in particular. However, the more alarmist
warnings should be tempered by the knowledge that Greece’s membership of
the EU in particular places safeguards around key issues like trade rules and
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